Justice League: Throne Of Atlantis
I was a huge fan of the “DCAU” or, more colloquially, the “Timmverse”, those series of animated shows that brought the DC characters of note to life in an extraordinary way. Justice League and its successor Justice League Unlimited remain, for me, some of the highest benchmarks of animation there are, and easily blow anything Marvel have come up with in the same medium out of the water.
But the Timmverse seems like a very long time ago now, DC and Warner Brothers having long since moved onto their movies. Fully 22 films have been released under this new blanket, some good, some great, and some quite bad. The overriding focus on Batman and Superman as marquee characters – headlining or being important parts of all but a handful of the films made so far – has resulted in declining returns for me, and for every The Dark Knight Rises there is a Son of Batman.
In an attempt to deal with that, the heads of DC/WB have tried branching out into their own shared universe, with the last few films switching back and forth between Batman-centric stuff and adaptations of the “New 52” Justice League reboot. Justice League: War was the start of this process, a middling Justice League origin story, good with its focus on Cyborg, not so good with Green Lantern as a comedic foil to Batman. Now comes the continuation and an introduction for Arthur Curry’s Aquaman (and maybe a soft test run for the Jason Mamoa live action version on the cards). The DC animated departments have done this story twice over already, with Justice League’s passable two-part “The Enemy Below” early in its run and an episode of the more kid-centric The Brave And The Bold. So, has this ground already been trod enough? Or can this “DCAMU” really get into high gear with a nautical adventure?
The recently formed Justice League is struggling to be more than just a concept, due to a lot of absenteeism and lack of interest. That’s a situation which requires change after the sinking of a nuclear submarine, which draws the attention of Victor Stone/Cyborg (Shemer Moore). Meanwhile Arthur Curry (Matt Lanter), a grieving and aimless young man, is stunned to find himself at the centre of a power struggle in the Kingdom of Atlantis between Queen Atlanna (Sirena Irwin) and her maniacal son Orm (Sam Witwer).
These films have long since broken from the previous tradition of PG-violence, where blood is very rarely shown, lasers substitute for bullets and characters actually dying was the kind of thing you might do once, maybe twice, in your shows entire run. Instead, as the opening of Throne Of Atlantis makes clear, the rules have changed. Blood pours onto walls and sailors with families drown to death in a tin can far underneath the surface of the ocean. There are moments in Throne Of Atlantis, and other films of the DCAMU, where such seriousness and “adult” content is good to see, but there are certainly others when you feel that there is too much of a Torchwood sentiment being employed, of the production team throwing in blood and death and the odd curse word just because they can throw them in, just because they want to seem cool and grown up to the modern breed of young audience.
From there Throne Of Atlantis throws itself into a whirlwind tour around the characters they introduced in War and the key newcomer. Part of my overall disappointment with Throne Of Atlantis actually stems from these opening ten or so minutes, as sub-plots are introduced only to be effectively abandoned, with the League itself relegated to being a supporting player in a story that its name is on. Cyborg, whose origin was one of the better parts of War, is struggling with his new situation, of being more machine than man and gradually coming to accept this fact. It’s all kinds of RoboCop, especially the newer one, inside Stone’s head, as he daydreams about being normal and deals with an attraction to one of the scientists that he works with. But it never really goes anywhere, with only the opening and closing few minutes focusing in on this aspect of Cyborg. The rest of the time, he’s just sort of there, and the standard progression of any kind of sub-plot (Introduction, elaboration, conclusion) is missing that vital middle element. One starts to feel the sinking realisation that Cyborg is present here more out of a desire to tick a demographic box than out of any hopes of turning his story into something worthwhile.
And that whole process is repeated again with a Superman/Wonder Woman pairing. The two share a couple of great scenes near the beginning, particularly one where they discuss the fine line between pretending to be “one of them” and actually being a member of the human race, all stemming from a discussion on Kent’s oft-mocked glasses. We even get to see Lois Lane as just a platonic friend of Clark’s, Throne Of Atlantis forgoing any predictable rivalry between her and Diana. But, again, the sub-plot goes nowhere. They’re introduced as being a couple, the rest of the film takes over, and we’re reminded about the state of affairs at the end. It’s clear the running time – all of 72 minutes – is a big problem in this regard, as the DCAMU guys seem eager to create a more grown up experience but not have it so long that the core target audiences attention will start to lapse. I’ve talked before on this site about how some films stretch themselves too far trying to get to the magic 90 minute mark. Throne Of Atlantis is an example of the opposite problem, of settling for a reduced running time (and workload) that leaves elements of the plot either rushed or hanging.
Finally, leaving all of that aside, Throne Of Atlantis leaps into the nitty gritty, introducing us to one Arthur Curry, a washed up (ha!) young man, drunk and grieving his recently deceased father. Curry’s introduction is bound to cause some divisive opinions. On the one hand, it’s somewhat charming and features some nice nods towards the character’s traits, like “chatting” with a lobster. On the other, he sort of comes across as a gigantic douchebag, drunkenly fighting with a bunch of generic toughs and nearly murdering them with his, but of course, superhuman strength. Throne Of Atlantis at least moves on from this sort of forced introduction to stuff that’s a bit more intriguing, like Curry’s drunken bereavement, loss of purpose, and memories of an absentee mother. But, as is standard I suppose, the effort needs more time and more elaboration to be truly worthwhile.
While Curry is moping around and waiting for the call to adventure, the rest of the Justice League get their call ups. On the one hand, it’s good to see Superman and Batman relegated to relatively minor positions in the story, seeing as how every other DC/WB effort is about them in some fashion. On the other, it’s not so good to see Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash and Shazaam all relegated to the same basic level. Batman is an annoying superior, Superman does the laser eyes a few times, Green Lantern messes things up and is snarky, the Flash runs around and Shazaam acts like a little kid. And that’s really it. Everyone likes characterisation, proper moments of individuality. Cyborg has a bit more, and the Superman/Wonder Woman scenes give those two a bit more. But the rest are just along for the ride, there to punch a few bad guys at the action beats and get beat up by Ocean Master at the finale.
Again, with a longer running time a bit more could have been done with these characters. There is vague hinting and nods towards the idea that the Throne Of Atlantis adventure is what actually forms the Justice League, since so many of them don’t actually appear to be all that bothered about it, Batman especially (why would he? He has his own film series). In the course of fighting the Atlantean threat, they realise that the team actually has to be, you know, a team. But this idea, like with all of Throne Of Atlantis’s sub-plots, is weakly implemented and not played around with enough. It comes down to just rounding up the various members as fast as possible and acting like they’ve learned a key lesson by the end, but there simply wasn’t enough fleshing out of this whole idea for my liking. I’m remembering things like Justice League’s “Secret Society”, which told such a story of team building in the face of a deadly threat, and told it well within a 42 minute window.
Anyway, enough about all of that. The crux of the matter is what’s going on in Atlantis, where the Queen and her right hand woman Mira (another only OK character, where a romantic plot, albeit being a predictable choice, would have helped) have to deal with rebellious heir to the throne Orm and his right hand fishbowl head Black Manta. This stuff is a lot better, even if it is, as feared, ground that is very well trod at this point. Orm is the war monger who wants to wipe out the “surface dwellers”, Atlanna is the peacemaker who wants a better world, and you can bet all the money in your pockets that Black Manta might have some ulterior motives himself. Replete with messages on false flag operations and fear of the unknown, the Atlantean plot is enjoyable enough before Curry gets dragged into it.
That happens very fast – Curry doesn’t take too much convincing to embrace his destiny as the true heir of Atlantis – and we’ve barely had time to register it really before more violence starts erupting on our screens, replete with lots of blood and things getting chopped in half or run through. It isn’t a last act where there is nothing but violence, but what plot existed is largely drowned out by it. There are few points that will leave a viewer intrigued or satisfied, as Throne Of Atlantis winds its way down to the most predictable of conclusions. The final battle at least gets some props for not being just another interminable slugfest, but actually showcasing the heroes employing some rare intelligence in how they bring down the bad guy (spoiler, they bring down the bad guy).
In the end, the plot offered by Throne Of Atlantis is just underwhelming and more than a little unsatisfying. The central arc is fine, despite being both predictable, unoriginal and rushed. It does what it has to do. Where Throne Of Atlantis really falls down is in its sub-plots and in anything really to do with the established members of this Justice League, who seem as if they’re just here to provide varying methods of punching bad guys while Arthur Curry enjoys the actual plot. One cannot help but feel that Throne Of Atlantis would have been better off if the Justice League had been dumped from the thing entirely, leaving Aquaman to hog the stage in his own origin story to a more complete extent. Despite the title, this just isn’t a Justice League story.
The VA here is mostly fine. Mostly. In line with previous criticisms, the actors doing the established Justice League roles have so little to do that it’s difficult to offer much in the way of commentary. Nathan Fillion’s Hal Jordan remains a treat, but maybe only because it’s still amazing to think he landed himself that role out of a popular wave of just getting him to play that character in some capacity. The rest are just delivering their lines without any great sense of purpose, and the fault lies with the actual words themselves I feel.
The Atlantean principals are split down the middle. Irwin and Lanter are poor enough, which is surprising given that Lanter is coming off his decent run as Anakin Skywalker on the under-appreciated The Clone Wars. I talked before about how Curry comes off as a bit of an asshole, and Lanter’s performance – flat and underwhelming – doesn’t really help to rectify that. It’s the bad guys who have the better roles: Sam Witwer chews the scenery the required way as Orm, deciding to go full megalomaniacal with it, and more power to him. In a cast full of misfiring deliveries, something over the top sticks out in a good way. Next to him is Harry Lennix as Manta, not a key role by any stretch, but one performed decently by a guy who has a big enough name that he could have been playing a more important character really.
This batch of animated movies has experimented with different styles, be it retro Golden Age inspired stuff or the more standard fare that Bruce Timm used for literal decades. But this DCAMU is taking its cues from a westernised adaptation of anime-style drawing, with the characters appearing both more realistic in certain ways, especially in terms of faces, but also being overly tall and lanky in others, such as in any wide shot. I wouldn’t say the style really thrills me all that much, and there are other problems too, like rather boring background “sets”, namely the Justice League HQ – a very large table in a somewhat bare room, the film hinting towards the Watchtower only at its end – and Atlantis itself, which looked better in far away shots but amounted to a lot of blue coral and waspish details in interiors.
And the visual violence is all kinds of nonsensical, to an extent that just causes eye rolling in a viewer of my age. That’s just me, and I’m sure a younger crowd will applaud the sort of red-filled violence being depicted here, but there is something staggeringly awful about seeing copious amounts of blood pouring out of someone’s nose like tits a facet after a punch, or the sheer grossness of multiple cases of slicing and dicing being performed. It’s stylised violence, again with an eastern inspiration in its depiction, but where something like this in live-action is better, because there you can see and imagine the actual blood in a real form, in the animated world it just seems rather stupid.
Throne Of Atlantis isn’t a write off visually, and there are some decent moments of directorial inspiration here. Kent and Diana’s hands breaking apart as they are interrupted by Lane, Curry silhouetted against a lighthouse beacon, Cyborg’s aborted trip into an internal fantasy world, they’re all good examples of the kind of shots and animated moments that work in Throne Of Atlantis. But they come few and far between unfortunately.
The script is a poor enough effort from Heath Corsen. Standard hero dialogue abounds, with a total lack of memorable lines that I could quote back at you as examples to judge Throne Of Atlantis by, be it positively or negatively. I’ve mentioned the Superman/Wonder Women discussion on “fitting in” and there are a few lines given to Queen Atlanna that are alright, as she recounts her happier days with Curry’s father. But Curry himself is written with a surprising lack of acknowledgement that his journey is supposed to be the tent pole – look at how fast he accepts his destiny as monarch of Atlantis for example – and in line with the drab delivery it combines to make him fairly unspectacular. Orm has some better stuff too, but the one standout for me was his use of the word “mewled” in the third act, which seemed like a direct attempt to copy the MCU’s Loki and his famous “mewling quim” insult in The Avengers. It’s in the individual moments that stuff like that comes to the fore: you can’t help but guffaw loudly as the film breaks out its allowance of curse words in the final battle (just one) for example.
There are a few moments when it seems like Kevin Kliesch’s score is about to really brighten up proceedings, and they mostly come early on, like the nicely Greek accompaniment to the Superman/Wonder Woman interaction, but then it all just reverts back to type: booming horns and violins, with enough drums to march an army to war. The saturation of superhero films, live-action and animated, is especially affecting the musical work, which struggles to hit the required beats for the story being told and the characters being shown off, while also doing whatever it can to be unique and memorable.
Some brief spoiler discussion follows.
-Orm’s plot, with the false attack and making the “surface dwellers” a bogeyman, has its political references to the contemporary world, something “The Enemy Below” pulled as well. But it’s a case of the production team executing that and then doing nothing with the idea past the half way point.
-I, for one, was quite surprised to see the Justice League forced to fight Cthulu after being captured by Orm. It was an unfortunately short and rather needless sequence, resolved in a boring manner.
-I was very confused by the sight of the US Army levelling their guns at an incoming tidal wave (Hmm, a subtle criticism of government approaches to global warming? Hardly).
-A cameo by John “Steel” Henry wasn’t the worst thing in the world, and might be a hint for a future “Unlimited” style expansion.
-The “reveal” that Manta was manipulating Orm all along, for his own ends, came way too late, and has its effectiveness knee-capped by how quickly and easily Curry was able to defeat him.
-The stinger, teasing the introduction of Lex Luthor, is a decent enough hook for the future, but Throne Of Atlantis really hasn’t done much to entice me back for another helping of this Justice League iteration.
Throne Of Atlantis is a film which had a bunch of good ideas that were worth animating and trying to weave together into a coherent narrative. But that’s all it has after completion, and the required work never took place to make it any better. Instead, the film delights in beginning sub-plots and then running away from them, in favour of a lame central arc that is let down by poor performances and poor writing. Overly violent to a laughable extent, and with animation choices that detract more than they impress, the individual elements of Throne Of Atlantis cannot form into a greater whole. Instead, after the only alright way this shared universe began in War, it has continued in a downward trajectory. Blame it on the short length, the violence, the overload of characters or the saturation of the genre, but the DCAMU seems to be going nowhere but down, and in a hurry. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Home Video).